A curtain call for Mr. La Russa

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced today that Tony La Russa would manage the National League team in the 2012 All Star Game. La Russa, 67, earned the honor when he managed the St. Louis Cardinals to the 2011 World Series, the managers for each team that makes the World Series is selected to manage the next year’s All Star Game. However, La Russa retired at the end of the 2011 season. While many fans wanted him to come back and manage once more, there wasn’t really a precedent to know whether he would.

This will be La Russa’s third time managing the NL All Stars, putting him at six total as he managed the American League three times as well.

The game will be in Kansas City this year. The interesting storyline that already has Cardinals’ fans buzzing is the potential of Albert Pujols being an American League All Star next season and seeing how Tony treats that strategically.

After retiring from the game after 16 seasons, Mr. La Russa gets a curtain call for possibly the first time in his career.

Cardinals announce non-roster invites

In addition to the 40 man roster, major league teams typically invite other players in their organization to participate in Spring Training as non-roster invites. The Cardinals have invited 19 additional players to Jupiter. The 2011 list includes 10 pitchers, 5 catchers, 4 infielders, and no outfielders.

This doesn’t mean that guys like 3B Zack Cox and OF Adron Chambers aren’t invited, they are already on the 40 man roster and therefore should already be there.

Teams also usually invite a large number of catchers from the organization because they have a lot of pitchers needing to get their work in.

The Cardinals have also invited RHP Carlos Martinez and OF Oscar Taveras along with OF Lance Jeffries, OF C.J. McElroy, OF Charlie Tilson, and IF Kenny Peoples-Wall to report early for major league camp.

Pitchers: LHP John Gast, LHP Nick Greenwood, RHP Tyrell Jenkins, RHP Joe Kelly, RHP Victor Marte, RHP Shelby Miller, RHP Trevor Rosenthal, LHP Kevin Siegrist, RHP Jordan Swagerty, and LHP R.J. Swindle.

Catchers: Luis De La Cruz, Koyie Hill, Steven Hill, Cody Stanley, Robert Stock

Infielders: 1B Matt Adams, SS Ryan Jackson, 2B Eugenio Velez, 2B Kolten Wong

Outfielders: None

McClellan avoids Arbitration

The Cardinals announced today that they have agreed to a 1 year deal worth $2.5 million with pitcher Kyle McClellan. The Cardinals and McClellan will avoid arbitration in his second arbitration eligible year.

McClellan, 27, started the season in the rotation after the injury to staff ace Adam Wainwright. McClellan had come through the minor league system as a starter, only to switch to relief after his Tommy John surgery. In 17 starts for the Cardinals, McClellan was 6-6 with a 4.21 ERA. After the acquisition of Edwin Jackson, McClellan made 26 more appearances out of the bullpen posting a 6-1 record and a 4.14 ERA.

He only made just 1 appearance in the playoffs for the Cardinals though after struggling with arm fatigue issues late in the season. There doesn’t appear to be any concern in the organization that those issues will continue into this season.

Many, including myself, have speculated that McClellan might be traded this offseason because of his desire to be a starting pitcher. With Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Jake Westbrook already in the rotation, Wainwright back from injury, and Lance Lynn slated to start the season in the Memphis rotation, the odds of that happening in a Cardinals’ uniform are slim. He’s also well liked, so I think if he made his desire known to the Cardinals’ brass, that it wouldn’t come out negatively.

That leaves the Cardinals with only Jason Motte‘s contract situation to sort out. Motte, 29, is in his first arbitration year and asked for $2.4 million. The Cardinals have offered $1.5 million.

Why the MLB still has a steroid problem

Mark McGwire has been passed over for the Hall of Fame for likely the sixth time. Rafael Palmeiro the second. It seems that the Baseball Writers of America Hall of Fame voters don’t want to vote alleged steroid users into the Hall of Fame. Can I blame them? Not really. However, what I will blame them for is keeping someone out of the Hall of Fame based purely on suspicion alone.

Now I am doing some reading tonight and I run across the NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk website where they have an article by Craig Calcaterra entitled “Three more Hall voters accuse Jeff Bagwell of being juicer.” What?

Inside the article, we go on to learn that at least three writers, Philip Hersh and Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune and Scot Gregor of Chicago’s Daily Herald, apparently believe that Jeff Bagwell used steroids.

Bagwell, now 43, is the holder of a career .297 batting average, a career on base percentage of .408, and a career slugging percentage of .540. He hit 449 home runs in his career, got 2314 hits and 1529 RBI. He was the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year and the 1994 NL Most Valuable Player. He played his entire 15 year career for the Houston Astros before announcing his retirement in 2005. His name has never been publicly linked to steroids.

So the question has to be asked where did these writers get these doubts? Do they have information, like Calcaterra suggests, that isn’t up to the snuff of ethical journalism to publish but is enough to make them question? And if they have it, why don’t the other writers, considering that none of the three covered Bagwell on the beat in Houston? Are they looking at the numbers and questioning his slugging ability? What is it that makes them believe that Jeff Bagwell may have used steroids? And why three Chicago sportswriters?

Well, part of the problem is that the BBWAA has taken it upon themselves to be the protectors of the sanctity of the game. No cheaters here! Well, except Gaylord Perry and guys who used amphetamines to gain that extra boost before a game since the 1940s.

Gaylord Perry is renowned for his spitball, which was illegal. He will readily admit that he threw it in games. Nobody is suggesting we remove him from the Hall of Fame.

Also, in the 1940s as “greenies” or amphetamines became common use as players tried to keep up with the demanding travel schedules as baseball became a more national game. They were used until they were banned within the last decade. It’s estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of players have used amphetamines. Odds are most in the Hall of Fame have too. In fact, considering the reputation that players like Mickey Mantle had for partying hard, it’s pretty safe to assume that he used them as well. Where are the calls to remove him from the Hall based on speculation?

Many have tried to argue with me that amphetamines aren’t “performance enhancing” because they don’t make you a better ball player. But they do enhance your performance because they make you as good as you are, longer. Your numbers are going to be inflated because you’ll be better in successive games as the season wore on than you otherwise would have been without them.

As baseball fans, we are romantic about the game and about the past. It’s hard not to be! However, we are naive to think that our era of baseball, the steroid era, is the only one tarnished with cheaters who used their illegal advantage to put up high level numbers and gain Hall of Fame consideration. The other eras of baseball are not pure and never were. People have been using whatever means necessary to gain an advantage as long as the game of baseball has been around.

And here’s the problem with keeping players out based on speculation, media members have been known to sit on stories for players that are well-liked or that are good to them. How do we know that a guy like Ken Griffey Jr or Cal Ripken Jr didn’t use in their careers? They are both very well liked by fans and media and you could see a reporter to two turning a blind eye, not wanting to ruin their careers.

While speculation surrounds nearly ever other power hitter (apparently, including Bagwell) of the steroid era, many hold Ken Griffey Jr up as the gold standard of a steroid-free power hitter. So why is Ken Griffey Jr, the holder of 630 career home runs, played 22 seasons in the big leagues, not questioned about steroid use? His final seasons were slowed by a succession of knee injuries, potentially a guy putting on too much upper-body strength? We can even question his development too. How does a guy go from averaging 22 home runs a year for the first four years of his career to averaging 44 a year over the next eight? That even includes 17 in a part-season bringing the average down.

I can raise suspicion around many players in baseball. I can throw stats at you that would raise eyebrows. Does that mean we should keep them out of the Hall of Fame too? Are players from the steroid era in danger of being “too good” that we can’t consider that they didn’t use? Steroid users that have talked to the media about what they’ve seen say that it was prevalent throughout baseball in the 1990s. Both pitchers and hitters have been caught.

Questions like this is why I think the Baseball Writers Association of America needs some sort of hard criteria generated for voting people into the Hall of Fame and their eligibility. Until we do, every year until steroid era players are removed from the ballots, the steroid debate will reignite and everyone will be reminded of it. There will be no getting past it for a decade or more.

My proposal: If you have tested positive for steroids during your playing career, you are no longer eligible for the Hall of Fame. Maybe twice to give you the benefit of the doubt of taking a product that has an unlisted illegal ingredient. It happens more than we would like to believe.

Of course, there are follow up questions to this proposal to deal with special circumstances. Let’s tackle those.

What about Barry Bonds and the players who didn’t test positive during their playing career because it wasn’t tested for? Unfortunately, there is no way to prove for sure that they used steroids. All we have is speculation. They get in.

What about Mark McGwire and guys like them who admitted having used steroids, but never tested positive? They get in too.

Whoa, Jon, they admitted it! You gotta keep them out!

Well, the first problem there is that they self identified as users. I think that deserves some credit. Beyond that PR people know that the quickest way to get over a story is to admit it, move on, and hope something else big comes along soon after. Think about the interview Mark McGwire gave after he was hired to be the hitting coach of the Cardinals, an interview he is widely believed to have been required to give as a condition of the job.

Everyone suspected McGwire had used. Most forget that he had already admitted using steroids over a decade ago, I remember reading that as a kid after the home run race of 1998. To get over the story, you follow the path of least resistance. If McGwire had sat in front of Bob Costas that night and maintained that he’d never used steroids would anyone on Earth have believed him? We all know the answer is no. That right there is enough reason to question the admission.

Guys like Rafael Palmeiro who tested positive during his playing days for using steroids, to me, his entire career is now in doubt. Did he start following the Congressional hearings where he pointed his finger to the cameras and said he never did steroids? Or did he lie to protect his reputation? We have proof that he used. He gets kept out.

America’s justice system was built on the foundation of “Innocent until proven guilty.” As a result, no simple speculation should be enough to destroy someone’s Hall of Fame chances. Baseball is touted as the American Pasttime. They should institute that same “Innocent until proven guilty” mantra and let guys who never were proven steroid users into the Hall of Fame.

Until baseball chooses to address this issue, they’ll continue to get run through the mud every year for their failures during the steroid era. It would be in their best interests to sort this out as quickly as possible without screwing players who may have never actually used. Punish the proven users, not the suspected users because suspicions can easily be wrong.

Like Redbird Dugout on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. You can also find me on Twitter at @jondoble.

UCB Project: Top Stories of 2011

This month’s United Cardinal Bloggers project is to break down what we thought the top-5 Cardinals Stories of 2011 were. Albert Pujols‘ departure and the Cardinals winning the World Series will be two very big stories that my fellow bloggers will likely be hitting on today. But those are easy. That’s the low hanging fruit. What really contributed to the Cardinals being there in October and getting their chance to come through and why? That’s what I’m going for.

#5. Adam Wainwright out for the season after Tommy John

Those dreaded words crossed my Twitter feed in February, just three months after I embarked on my Cardinals’ blogging mission. The names “Tommy John” and “Adam Wainwright” were mentioned in the same tweet. And to top everything off, Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak was not feeling optimistic when he talked about Wainwright’s injury. And so we waited with baited breaths wondering how Wainwright’s doctor’s appointment in St. Louis would turn out. Would we lose our ace?

Many looked back to 2007 and 2008. Those were two seasons where we lost Chris Carpenter, then our clear #1 pitcher, for the majority of the season. He made 1 start in 2007 and 4 starts in 2008. The Cardinals finished 3rd in 2007 and 4th in 2008 in the NL Central. Was our season over before it began?

Many fans packed it in and it would have been easy for the Cardinals to dwell on the loss of Wainwright. But they moved on without the ace of their pitching staff determined to compete without him. That determination would come in handy throughout the season. Little did we know it would set the tone for the season. Whether it was Matt Holliday‘s appendix, a moth looking for a new home, Allen Craig‘s knee cap, or Albert Pujols’ wrist, the team was determined to give everything when it would have been very easy to mail it in without their key players. It would have been a good excuse that everyone would have bought. The Cardinals were a team ravaged by injuries all year.

The determination to get over the injury of Wainwright and move forward served the team well. From day one they were being prepared for a difficult season.

#4. The Search for a Closer

For a few years the Cardinals had been relying on Ryan Franklin to be the team’s closer. And I’ve been saying for just as long that Ryan Franklin isn’t a very good closer and we needed some insurance for him because it was simply a matter of time. However, I think the Cardinals were attempting to ride it out at least one more year with Franklin taking the ball in the 9th inning.

But when the season started and Ryan Franklin was ineffective, it threw the entire Cardinals’ bullpen into chaos. First it was Mitchell Boggs who got the 9th inning opportunities. Then he blew one and Eduardo Sanchez got a chance. Then Sanchez struggled to throw his slider for strikes when batters realized they could just take the pitch and Fernando Salas finally got the opportunity.

Salas, the only pitcher near ready to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals who had closing experience. Going into 2011 he was a perfect 44-for-44 in save opportunities between Springfield in 2008 and Memphis is 2010. Why he didn’t get the first opportunity is quite a bit of conjecture, but when the Cardinals needed a stabilizing influence in the 9th inning, they found it in Salas. He got his first save opportunity on April 28th. It was a little exciting with a hit and a walk, but he got the job done. He would save 10 games before blowing his first on June 1st. Over the summer he became a little homer happy, opening the door for Jason Motte who was having a dominant summer.

Jason Motte went from June 26th to September 6th, a span of 34 appearances and 26 1/3 innings, without allowing an earned run. It was enough to get Tony LaRussa to say he wanted to get Motte some time in the 9th inning role, but stopping short of naming Motte the team’s closer. On August 28th he got his first save as the team’s 9th inning man and racked up a total of 9 as the season went on.

#3. Wheeling and Dealing at the Deadline

Colby Rasmus was the future of the franchise. Or so we all thought going into 2011. He had a really good start to the season as well, with many, including myself, thinking that he had finally turned the corner and unlocked that potential. However, it wasn’t long before Rasmus was mired once again in a huge slump at the plate and was making big mistakes in center field. By July, most Cardinals fans were debating the merits of making Jon Jay the team’s starting center fielder. Apparently, so was Tony LaRussa as Jay started getting more and more playing time in center field.

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ GM, had apparently been working on an extension with Rasmus that would have bought out his arbitration years. The team still viewed him as a major part of their future. They denied wanting to trade him, but everyone recognized that Rasmus would be the organization’s largest trading piece.

Despite the rumors of teams like Tampa Bay offering a very good starting pitcher for Rasmus, Mozeliak decided to take an offer that was viewed as lesser of the deals, but it did two very important things for the Cardinals. It filled holes in the rotation and the bullpen, something the other deals didn’t. Mozeliak knew Rasmus was his biggest (and likely only) bullet, he needed to it fix as many problems as possible. It also brought the Cardinals back draft picks for Edwin Jackson and Octavio Dotel who left for free agency. They also got to keep Marc Rzepczynski, a talented left handed pitcher, something the Cardinals have been unable to produce on their own in recent years.

He wasn’t done. The Cardinals needed to improve the defense at short stop. Their plan to forego offense for defense during the offseason had come around to bite them when Ryan Theriot struggled to field his position as he had in the past. Mozeliak found a partner in the Dodgers who were willing to send them Rafael Furcal. All the Dodgers wanted was Alex Castellanos, and considering the Cardinals were facing a little bit of an outfielder squeeze at the top of their minor league depth charts, he was expendable.

When all was said and done, for the price of Colby Rasmus and Double-A outfielder Alex Castellanos, John Mozeliak filled every hole on the 2011 Cardinals. It was a move that earned him Executive of the Year awards, but the Cardinals still needed help to get to the playoffs.

#2. September and the Hunt for a Cardinal Red October

Despite the additions, the team went just 15-13 in August and fell from half a game back of Milwaukee when the trades were made to 8.5 games back when August drew to a close. But that was mainly because Milwaukee was really good in August, going 21-7. It’s hard to keep up with a team who is that hot.

But the Cardinals would put together an 18-8 September, finishing as one of the hottest teams in baseball as they slipped into the playoffs on the final day of the season, courtesy of the Philadelphia Phillies beating the Atlanta Braves. Many would say that the Braves choked up the playoff spot, but when you look at the fact they lost their #1 pitcher for the final two months of the season and their #2 pitcher for the final month, I have a hard time saying that. Where would the Cardinals have been this year if they’d lost Chris Carpenter as well? Nowhere pretty.

It was just what the Cardinals needed to get into the playoffs. As Daniel of C70 at the Bat said Wednesday night on the UCB Radio Hour, if the Braves win two more games anywhere in the season, they go to the playoffs and we don’t have this discussion and the trade of Rasmus seems like a huge mistake. What a kill joy.

#1. The Emergence of David Freese and Allen Craig

My top story of the season has nothing to do with the big names Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman (though Berkman did have an excellent 2011 season, way better than I expected). I attribute a lot of the Cardinals winning this World Series to the unsung heroes of this team. The Cardinals run into the playoffs and to the World Series Championship was a total team effort. There was no singular player’s performance, at least from a player you could expect.

Allen Craig, the subject of my largest sports man-crush right now, only had about 220 plate appearances for the Cardinals this season, but they were MVP quality appearances. His 2.9 WAR over those plate appearances projects out to 8.6 if he gets 650 plate appearances at the same rate. That’s better than some guy named Ryan Braun, who walked home with the National League MVP trophy. He also had RBI in 5 of the 7 games in the World Series. He had the game-winning RBI in game 1. He had a go-ahead RBI in game 2. His first inning home run in game 3 set the tone for the Cardinals. His 8th inning home run in game 6 was crucial to set up David Freese‘s opportunity. And in Game 7, his third inning home run put the Cardinals on top for good. He was definitely a worthy candidate as World Series MVP in my opinion. Well, were it not for this next guy.

It was a situation that all kids dream about. You play with the bat in the backyard and you call out the situation to yourself, “Bottom of the 9th. Game on the Line. Two out. Down to your last strike. You lose the World Series if you don’t get this hit. In comes the pitch…” It’s a triple off the wall to tie up the game! Even more incredible when you come up to bat 2 innings later and hit your first home run of the World Series to win the game in walk-off style to send it to Game 7. Then he goes and gets the game tying runs in the bottom of the 1st just two nights later in Game 7. Yeah, that’s David Freese.

It was the emergence David Freese and Allen Craig that really propelled this team. Your superstars can only do so much. Teams attempt to minimize the impact your superstars have on the game. Having players behind them who will make them pay too, that just makes things sweeter. And that’s what makes a team a winner.

Those are my top-5 stories. What are yours?

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